No matter how winding and cold the trail, Randy Hansen pursued justice for Aaroné Thompson.

February 2010

Tuesday, November 15, 2005
It was nearing 3 a.m. as Hansen tiptoed into his dark house, trying not to wake his sleeping family. He slipped silently into the warm bed next to Carrie. He'd perfected the move over the years; coming in late was part of the job.

He'd been a cop for 15 years—first booking inmates into jail, then working patrol—but the past three years as a CAC detective had been the most intense. He'd taken the detective exam because he'd had his fill of society's riff-raff, the drunkards and drug addicts. The CAC unit wasn't exactly what he'd had in mind when he'd gone fishing for a promotion. With a 14-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son of his own, listening to tales of child torture and sexual abuse turned his stomach. He'd had to learn not to blush when a nine-year-old used words like "cooter" or "hoohah" to describe where her uncle had touched her. It was impossible not to see his own kids in the faces of young victims. He hated the job for nearly a year before he found a reason to love it: The first time he got a guilty verdict and put an end to a child's suffering, he knew why he was where he was.

Which is why he hadn't minded being in Aurora for six hours that night. It was his job to find a missing little girl, to bring her back to her family—even if that meant hours away from his own. With little more to go on than an old photograph, Hansen was aware of what lay ahead for him. Phone calls. Leads. Dead ends. Hansen mentally prepared for what was shaping up to be a real missing-child case—his first one ever.

Only five hours after he slipped into bed with Carrie, Hansen was back in Aurora. Time is precious when a child has gone missing. According to studies, the first few hours are the most critical: Nearly three-quarters of abducted children who are murdered are dead within three hours of the abduction. Aaroné had been missing for 19 hours. Hansen checked in with officers who'd been canvassing the block. Out of the nine houses on the street, not one resident knew the Thompsons well. The consensus, patrol officers told Hansen, was that the family was unfriendly and reclusive. The kids never played outside. The parents didn't return a neighborly wave.

Hansen had hoped to scrape together some details on where the kids played and how often the neighbors saw Aaroné outside. Without that information Hansen had to find another way to get a bead on Aaroné. He had officers ask Lowe and Thompson for something of the girl's—anything from which bloodhounds could draw a scent. The trail the dogs sniffed off a baby doll evaporated in a field near the house. Hansen also asked the Thompsons for some of Aaroné's clothing for DNA extraction. Lowe sent one of the kids to fetch a bundle of Aaroné's tops and bottoms. Hansen held up each item of clothing and lifted a skeptical eyebrow—not one piece looked large enough to fit a six-year-old child. If there was one thing Hansen had learned during his years on the job, it was that the simplest explanation was usually the correct one: Aaroné didn't just go missing over a cookie.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005
The case was everywhere. The investigation was the lead story on every news channel. The community, unwilling to accept that a six-year-old had simply disappeared, pulled together to find her for her family. Missing-child posters with the blurry photograph of Aaroné were taped up all over the city. Volunteer search groups fanned out across Aurora, looking in parks, wooded areas, and open fields for Aaroné. Hansen manned his desk at the Aurora Police Department, making calls, setting up interviews, checking e-mails, and following up with his team. Police work, grunt work. Tips had been streaming into the hotline the department had set up, and Hansen had his people checking out the most credible leads. Nothing crucial surfaced. Nothing, until a call came in from the Colorado Department of Corrections: An inmate at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility said he had information about little Aaroné.

Of the eight children living in the Kepner Place house, none was the biological offspring of both Thompson and Lowe. Lowe was pregnant with what would soon be the couple's first child together. Two of the other children were fathered by Eric Williams Sr., a former boyfriend of Lowe's. Williams had since become a ward of the state of Colorado, a drug addict who'd ditched a court-appointed stay at a halfway house. It was Williams' cellmate who called the hotline. He said Williams had told him things about Aaroné that Hansen would want to know. She's dead, said Williams' cellie. She's been dead for years; she died in the bathtub, and they buried her in a field somewhere.

The tip made sense to Hansen. That was why there were no photographs. That was why there were only seven mattresses. That was why Thompson and Lowe's behavior seemed so off—it would've been nearly impossible for them to get appropriately emotional about a little girl lost in the cold when she was already dead. And that, Hansen thought, was also probably why Lowe and Thompson had reported her "missing" when they did—if family was going to visit after the birth of the new baby, they'd want to know where Aaroné was. That she'd run away or been kidnapped was a better story than telling the grandparents she'd died and had been buried in a field. Hansen sent detectives to Cañon City to interview both Eric Williams Sr. and his chatty cellmate. He wanted to know exactly why Williams thought Aaroné was dead. It took a moment to sink in, but Hansen realized his missing-child case likely had just become a homicide investigation.

With Williams' plausible allegations in mind, Hansen headed back to the Kepner Place house to interview the other seven kids. Thompson and Lowe initially had been unwilling to allow the detective to interview the kids alone. But they had finally relented. When Hansen arrived, all seven children were clean, dressed, and waiting. Hansen took the kids, one at a time, into another room for questioning. The interviews were, for the most part, unremarkable. The kids seemed nervous and tongue-tied, their answers clipped and unhelpful, until Hansen sat down with the youngest boy, a soft-spoken, squirmy, eight-year-old son of Shely Lowe's. Sitting in a chair in the middle of the room, the child's legs dangled, his feet barely able to touch the floor. Most of the session followed the same pattern as the others—seemingly easy questions followed by useless answers. But as Hansen finished this particular interview, the detective asked the young man if he had any questions. "Yes," the boy said. "Don't you want to know about Aaroné's favorite food and her favorite color and what she was for Halloween?"

Surprised by the question, Hansen replied that he would like to know those things.

Pizza, orange, and a witch, said the eight-year-old, obviously proud that he'd been able to tell the policeman what he thought the cop wanted to hear.

"Who told you to tell me that?" asked Hansen.

"No one," he said.

Hansen studied the child. It was the way the boy had said it, scripted and rote. The detective's own kids, Justin and Cami, were teenagers now, and although he was often away on the job, Hansen had been around his kids enough to know they never would have asked that kind of question at that age. When his kids were little, Hansen had worked the night shift to make things easier on the family. While Carrie worked at the hair salon they owned together, he had stayed home in the afternoons to watch Justin and Cami. He knew eight-year-olds. He knew their tendencies; he knew how they acted; and he certainly knew when they weren't telling the truth.